Ameer Hamza

The Russian invasion of Ukraine results from a deeply rooted history of mistrust between NATO and Russia. The threats to Russia from NATO’s eastward expansion are more legitimate than NATO’s premise of going eastward, where Ukraine only acts as a wrestling ring between the political heavyweights.

Here, Ukraine is left with no choice but to demand security guarantees from NATO. The current position of Ukraine is no more different than Athens’s siege of Melos during the Peloponnesian Wars.

The Peloponnesian Wars (431 to 405 B.C.) between Athens and Sparta chalked out the blueprints of alliance politics and set the benchmark for states to pursue their national interests through alliances.

The character of geopolitics and warfare has radically transformed over the centuries, but the way states behave in shaping the conflict remains a static milestone on a sturdy road since then. 

Athens laid down the siege of natural Spartan ally Melos, an island tribe in the Aegean Sea because Melians had ancestral ties with Sparta.

The Athenian commanders laid down the siege and negotiated the Melian surrender on the premise that ‘the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel’ followed by the practical fact that ‘the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.’

Interestingly, the Melian asserted the significance of ‘such a thing as fair play and just dealing’ in state relations and asked for a choice between neutrality, friendship, and allies of neither side.

Meanwhile, Melians spoke highly of their ancestral ties with Sparta ‘who are bound, if for no other reason, then for honor’s sake’ to appear strong in the bargain. 

The Athenian commander interrupted and referred to help from Sparta, that too, out of honor, saying, ‘we must congratulate you on your simplicity but do not envy you your folly.’

Spartans are remarkably good at things that directly concern them but are ‘most conspicuous’ for taking proper steps as you expect and suggested Melians to come out of the emotional quest for safety.

This conversation is a stark comparison between the prevalent Ukraine crisis given Melian dialogue considering the Ukrainian urge to seek help from NATO.

It is appropriate to identify the identical actors in both conflicts by putting Ukraine in Melian’s shoes, Russia in place of Athens, whereby the U.S.-led alliance plays Sparta. To draw a better understanding of the situation, 

A brief deductive overview of the Ukraine crisis is warranted to understand the analogy of war and inferences between the conflicts. Currently, Russia is facing the infamous Eastward expansion of NATO started right after the disintegration of the USSR under NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997, allowing Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic into NATO.

Boris Yeltsin was a bitter pill to swallow because he was left with no choice but to accede to the agreement with NATO, hoping for normalcy in diplomatic relations with the West. However, he summed up the courage to exhibit his resentment at the signing ceremony citing Russia’s negative attitude’ towards NATO expansion.

This laid the foundation stone of the Russian resurgence of incumbent President Putin after succeeding President Boris Yeltsin. The innate sense of insecurity further aggravated Russian statehood by five different waves of eastward expansion, amassing 30 members in the alliance.

 For reference, it is necessary to note that Russia was not in a power equation to keep Baltic States out of NATO, but it drew a red line when NATO declared to accept Georgia and Ukraine at the Bucharest NATO Summit in 2008.

The Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 can also be seen in the backdrop of the Bucharest Summit followed by the intervention in Crimea 2014 but did NATO learn any lesson and assess the insecurity in the Kremlin? Historically speaking, it never cared.

It is difficult for states to make their concerns, threats, and warnings credible, and it took Russia three good decades since 1992. Currently, the display of military posture coupled with nuclear deterrence by Moscow has kept NATO at bay and Ukraine abandoned.

 The current government in Ukraine had the complete confidence of joining NATO and possibly E.U. before Russia, which clouded its judgment of Russian concerns and possible actions.

The leadership of NATO might understate the Kremlin’s concerns and did not take any preemptive measures to defend Ukraine if President Putin resorts to military action. However, President Putin mobilized his forces on the border with Ukraine and emboldened his military posture ending in actual military intervention in Ukraine. Melos is left at the mercy of Athens while Sparta plays the flute.

The inferences are crystal clear. Russia holds firm ground in Ukraine, while NATO, once adamant about embracing Ukraine in NATO, abandons it at the mercy of Moscow.

Like Athens did not accept neutrality, friendship, and non-alliance with any party to the conflict, Moscow held firm ground to attack Ukraine and presented the charter of demand.

Ukraine hoped for the assistance of the U.S. by demanding ammunition and closure of Ukrainian airspace as Melians hoped for Spartans to act in ‘honor,’ but the U.S. acted in the ‘most conspicuous’ Spartan manner.

 The whole spectrum of arguments and facts reduces NATO into a single baseline; NATO acts at the behest of the U.S. alone when its core interests are threatened, i.e., Afghanistan.

If an alliance meant for collective security is prejudicial to the security of its leading state, confidence is the first casualty. The validity of this argument can be found in Europe, where states like Germany are skeptical about NATO and choose to increase their defense spending.

Although Ukraine is not a de jure member of NATO, it has been credited with the mention in the Bucharest Declaration. By the account of Melian fairness, justice, and Spartan honor, the U.S. would be bound to defend the very existence of Ukraine, but it fails.

This is precisely why we see no other military alliance in any region in the post-Cold War world. The current conflict reaffirms the principle of self-help and balance of power by any means but military alliances.

Russia may not treat Ukraine the way Athens overran Melians given the modern geopolitical realities and achieved its objectives with lesser cost, but it reaffirms the basic rule of great power politics established centuries ago.

*The writer is a research fellow at the Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies and The Diplomatic Insight 

*The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not represent the position of the institutions 

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